"By the side of the caravan road a heavy cross had been planted, and on this grim tree a man hung, nailed there by iron spikes through his hands and feet. Naked but for a loin-cloth, the man was almost a giant in stature, and his muscles stood out in thick corded ridges on limbs and body, which the sun had long ago burned brown..."
Queen Taramis of Khauran awakens one day to find an identical twin sister, Salome, staring her in the face. As an infant, Salome was deemed a witch due to a crescent birthmark on her chest. This birthmark was believed to be a sign of evil, so she was left in the desert to die. However, a magician from Khitai (China) found her, brought her up, and instructed her in the arts of sorcery.
Salome has conspired with the Voivode Constantius, known as "the Falcon," the Kothic leader of a force of Shemitish mercenaries, to take over the city state. Queen Taramis is taken to the palace dungeon, with the implication of torture and rape. Salome assumes Taramis' identity as queen of Khauran and names Constantius her royal consort. The Khaurani army is disbanded and replaced by Constantius' Shemitish mercenaries, an event which turns violent when the captain of the queen's guard, Conan the Cimmerian, refuses to obey the order.
After putting his back to a wall and killing a number of Constantius' Shemites, Conan is finally captured and crucified for his defiance. Olgerd Vladislav, the Zaporoskan leader of a band of Zuagir desert raiders, rides by with a scouting party and happens by the crucified Conan a mile from the city walls. Vladislav does not entirely help Conan. He has the base of the cross cut, leaving it to fate and Conan's hardiness that he is not crushed by the heavy wood. Vladislav then refuses to give Conan any water, claiming the Cimmerian must wait until after a ten-mile trek to the outlaw camp to prove his worthiness to his band.
In Khauran, Salome's reign as "Taramis" has plunged the state into ruin. Citizens are killed, tortured or sold as slaves; heavy taxes are imposed and women are frequently debauched by the Shemites. Salome desecrates the temple of Ishtar in the center of the city and summons a demon, Thaug, to live within it. Khaurani citizens are routinely sacrificed to Thaug.
Conan has been expanding the numbers of the Zuagirs as Vladislav's lieutenant, while also secretly establishing communication with Khaurani knights who had become refugees. When he has sufficient forces he usurps Vladislav's leadership of the Zuagirs, but does not kill him in repayment for Vladislav having saved him from the cross. Conan fakes the construction of siege engines with palm trees and painted silk. Constantius is fooled by this as his scouts cannot get close enough to see them properly and Conan is known to be experienced in all manner of warfare. The mercenary army rides out of the city for an open-field battle with Constantius expecting only the lightly armed Zuagirs, but are taken by surprise by Khaurani heavy cavalry hidden amongst them. Conan's forces are victorious, ruthlessly taking no prisoners. The Zuagirs, Semite nomads, are hereditary enemies of the Western Semite city dwellers from whom Constantius' mercenaries were drawn, while the Khaurani exiles at are full of bitterness at the Semites' oppression of their city; neither are inclined to be merciful to their defeated enemies.
Meanwhile, Valerius, a former member of the Khaurani army, has discovered the secret of Salome's masquerade, and the fact that Salome is holding the real Taramis in the dungeon. With Conan's forces approaching Khauran, Valerius plans to rescue Taramis and reveal the conspiracy to the people or to escape with the true queen. Conan's victory is not certain to the Khauranis and they are nervous about his intentions if he does take Khauran. When it becomes apparent that Conan has defeated Constantius' Shemites, Salome decides to kill Taramis before Conan can take the city. She thwarts Valerius' rescue attempt and takes Taramis to the former temple of Ishtar to sacrifice her to Thaug. Valerius saves Taramis and kills Salome, but not before she unleashes Thaug. Conan, arrives with his Khaurani allies and some Zuagir warriors, who kill the demon with two flights of arrows.
Taramis offers to make Conan councillor as well as captain but he declines, nominating Valerius instead. Conan, as chief of the Zuagirs, mops up the remaining Shemites, capturing Constantius in the process, and leaves to raid the nearby Turanians. Before leaving Khauran, he crucifies Constantius by the stump of the crucifix from which he escaped, commenting with irony to the crucified Constantius the difference between their respective situations: "I hung there on a cross as you are hanging, and I lived, thanks to circumstances and a stamina peculiar to barbarians. But you civilized men are soft; your lives are not nailed to your spines as are ours. Your fortitude consists mainly in inflicting torment, not in enduring it. You will be dead before sundown. And so, Falcon, I leave you to the companionship of another bird of the desert."
Salome's words at the beginning - ""'Every century a witch shall be born.' So ran the ancient curse. And so it has come to pass. Each was named Salome. I too am Salome. It was always Salome, the witch. It will always be Salome, the witch, even when the mountains of ice have roared down from the pole and ground the civilizations to ruin, and a new world has risen from the ashes and dust—even then there shall be Salomes to walk the earth, to trap men's hearts by their sorcery, to dance before the kings of the world, and see the heads of the wise men fall at their pleasure" - clearly imply that the witch Salome of this story is an earlier incarnation of the notorious Salome of the New Testament, who instigated the beheading of John the Baptist.
A theme of paranoia runs through the story. Howard uses a theme common to his works in having evil hide behind innocent features. Similarly, Vladislav is unaware of Conan's plans until it is too late. Of all the characters, only Conan is aware of all the facts. The twin sisters Taramis and Salome are an instance of Howard's interest in siblings and the theme of duality, which appeared in several other works.
Howard may have been experimenting with style in this novella, leaving behind any standard pulp formula. Conan dominates the story but he is only actually present in two chapters. The narrative instead builds the plot by following others, such as Valerius, Salome and a wandering savant Astreas.
Louinet suggests that Conan becomes figuratively immortal and superhuman following his crucifixion: "How can anybody kill a character—literarily or literally—who can survive such a scene as that one?"
The supernatural elements of the story are minor and may only have been included to justify publication in Weird Tales. The demon Thaug is similar to that in Howard's unfinished novel Almuric, which he had abandoned only a few months before starting this story. The quick reveal and defeat of the demon may indicate that Howard was embarrassed by its inclusion.
The ongoing theme of Barbarism vs. Civilization, which pervades the entire Conan series, is present in this story in two crucifixions. Conan is able to endure and survive his crucifixion, and the subsequent journey without water, thanks to his barbarian stamina. When Constantius is finally crucified, Conan states "You are more fit to inflict torture than endure it. ... You civilized men are soft; your lives are not nailed to your spines are as ours."
This story was written in late May or early June 1934. Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales, was running out of Conan stories which were growing in popularity and attracting new readers to the magazine. Howard had recently finished the Conan novel The Hour of the Dragon, which was not intended for publication in Weird Tales and the story previous to that, "The People of the Black Circle" was already scheduled for August. He finished "A Witch Shall Be Born" in only two drafts over a period of days in order to meet this deadline. Wright accepted it without hesitation, telling Howard it was his best Conan story to date, and made it the cover story for the December issue.
Howard scholar Patrice Louinet refers to this as a rather forgettable Conan story but one that contains the most memorable scene of the entire series: Conan's crucifixion at the hands of Constantius. He goes on to say that, while of average quality, it "exudes Howard's confidence in his creation."
Robert Weinberg concurs, mentioning the "best scene in the entire Conan series" but comments that the remainder of the story in only average. Of the crucifixion, Weinberg writes, "Only Howard could have given the scene life." He states that this scene, the "blood and passion", is an indicator of why Howard is better than any of his imitators. The violence is "graphic and elemental" while the torture "barbaric, primitive and real" not allowing the hero a chance to escape. Instead, Conan survives by sheer endurance, even killing an overeager vulture with his teeth. The passion in the text and strength of the prose suspends disbelief in Conan's survival on the cross. However, Weinberg criticizes the fact that much of the action takes place offstage, for instance, being related to the reader through a letter from the otherwise unseen Astreas or through a priest communicating with Salome.
On the same subject, Rev. Austin Spencer noted that: "The Crucifixion of Jesus has left a deep mark on all members of Western culture, regardless of whether or not one be a Christian believer. Robert E. Howard is certainly no exception. (...) When I was preparing the present volume, a colleague drew my attention to A Witch Shall be Born. I was both impressed and appalled by Howard's achievement - creating a full-fledged Pagan counterpart and total antithesis to the New Testament account.(...) The crucified Conan does not feel forsaken by his god, Crom. This god, Crom, offers neither physical deliverance not spiritual solace - he merely endows Cimmerians with enormous strength and tenacity to fight. Conan, killing a vulture with his teeth while pinioned to the cross, is a true votary of his savage god. There are no thieves crucified at Conan's side - the thieves remove him from the cross in exchange for his joining their thievery. (...) Conan does not forgive his enemies, and certainly does not ask Crom to do so; he takes direct and ruthless revenge. For Conan, the rule is simple and straightforward - "Crucify Or Be Crucified". (...) One need not take literally the grim tribal god on his mountain to recognize in today's America the votaries and prophets of Crom, who would take spiritual guidance from the Crucifixion of Conan rather than the Crucifixion of Jesus".
The story was first published in the December 1934 issue of Weird Tales. The first reprint followed in 1949, when the story was published in the digest anthology Avon Fantasy Reader #10. The novella was the cover story and main feature of both publications.
A version of the story that was edited and altered by L. Sprague de Camp appeared in the collection Conan the Barbarian (Gnome Press, 1954). This was reprinted several times, notably in the collection Conan the Freebooter (Lancer Books, 1968). It was first published by itself in book form by Donald M. Grant, Publisher, Inc., titled A Witch Shall Be Born, in 1974, which did not use the de Damp version.
The novella has more recently been published in the collections The Conan Chronicles Volume 1: The People of the Black Circle (Gollancz, 2000), The Bloody Crown of Conan (Del Rey, 2005). It was selected by John Clute as part of the Penguin Modern Classics collection Heroes in the Wind (Penguin Books, 2009). All versions used pure-Howard texts with de Camp's alterations excised.
The story was adapted for comic books by Roy Thomas and John Buscema in Savage Sword of Conan #5 (1975). The crucifixion scene was adapted for the first Conan film, Conan the Barbarian (1982). The original script for the film, written by Oliver Stone, was based on this novella and another Conan story, "Black Colossus", and re-set in a post-apocalyptic future. When John Milius took over directing the film, he had the script changed but retained the crucifixion scene, described by Kenneth Von Gunden as "Howard's quintessential Conan scene: the mighty Cimmerian, hanging on a cross, nails driven through his hands and feet, tearing out the throat of a vulture which comes to peck out his eyes."
The name "Queen Taramis" was also used in the second Conan movie, Conan the Destroyer (1984), played by actress Sarah Douglas. The mark of Salome also appears in this film, with the character Jehnna, but it is not used in the same way.
The Czech death metal band Animal Hate released the album ...A Witch Shall Be Born in 2008 based on this story.
Another comics adaptation was done in 2015-2016 by Fred Van Lente and Brian Ching in Conan the Avenger #20-25.